Tarantulas have been a relatively popular pet now for several years. They are unique, quiet, and need little space and keeping tarantulas as pets can make a fascinating hobby. However, if you want to handle your pet a lot they aren't the best choice. There are many species available in the pet trade in a variety of sizes and appearances, and they are usually easy to care for but it can depend on the species.
There are over 800 species of tarantulas belonging to the family Theraphosidae. They are native to many areas and climates - arid, subtropical and tropical. They are roughly divided into two groups: "old world" (from the eastern hemisphere) and "new world" (from the western hemisphere). One of the more popular species kept as a pet is the Chilean rose (Grammostola rosea), a hardy, easy to care for spider native to Chile.
Are Tarantulas Dangerous?
Tarantulas can bite and their bites are venomous. However, for most species, the toxicity of their venom is much like that of a bee or wasp. It is most likely to cause a nasty local reaction including pain, redness, and swelling. However, people can have an allergic or anaphylactic reaction to spider bites in the same way that some people react to bee stings, and this reaction can be fatal. Also, there are few species which have a stronger venom that could potentially be fatal or at least make the bite victim quite ill. So while tarantula bites are unlikely to be fatal, you still want to avoid being bitten and the best way to do this is to learn about spider behavior and treat the spider accordingly. Tarantulas are wild animals and need to be treated with respect. As a rule, however, most spiders would rather retreat than bite.
Another concern with regards to handling tarantulas is irritation and itching from special hairs found on some new world tarantulas. These tarantulas possess what are called "urticating" (itch-causing) hairs on their abdomens, which they can release by vigorously rubbing their abdomens if threatened. These tiny hairs are barbed and can work their way into the skin and cause itching and irritation. If these hairs get into the eye they can easily penetrate the eye and cause inflammation. Be very careful not to rub your eyes after doing anything with the spider and its cage until washing your hands (there may be loose hairs in the cage that can be picked up while cleaning, etc.) and don't get in too close to look at your spider. If you get some hairs on your hand you can try blotting them with tape and then washing well. Topical cortisone cream might also help with the itching.
Choosing a Pet Tarantula
As mentioned before, there are many species available in the pet trade. In general, the best "beginner" tarantulas are the ground dwellers or burrowers as they tend to be a little slower moving. The following are among the best tarantulas for first time owners:
The pinktoe (Avicularia avicularia) is often cited as a good first arboreal tarantula but not a good first tarantula. In general, arboreal species are more challenging to care for, and the pinktoe is quite fast and agile, making handling more difficult.
As a pet, a female is usually the better choice simply because females tend to be much longer lived than males. A female Chilean rose may be expected to live over 20 years whereas the male of any species will not likely survive more than a couple of years at best. Many dealers will guarantee the sex. In any case, males will spend most of their time trying to get out to find a mate, much to their distress.
When choosing a spider, avoid spiders that are hunched with their legs curled under them, or that are housed without a dish of water. Try to find out the scientific name for the spider (as that will be the best way to get the appropriate care information) and make sure the age and gender are known.
A large enclosure isn't necessary but if you have an arboreal species of tarantula you will need a tall cage and a burrowing type will need appropriate substrate or hiding places. Generally, spiders should be housed one to a cage as they are not social.
For burrowing or terrestrial spiders, a general rule of thumb is that the cage should be approximately 3 times the leg span long and 2 times the leg span wide. The height should not be much more than the length of the spider - these spiders are heavy and if they climb and fall it can be dangerous, even fatal. 2.5 or 5-gallon aquariums work well. A larger tank is not better in this case, as tarantulas do not need a lot of extra space and a large tank may make prey harder to find. The arboreal tarantulas need a cage that is tall to provide climbing room with branches, twigs, or some other structure on which the spider can construct its web. A 10-gallon aquarium set on one end can work well for this purpose. They do need to have a very secure lid, as they can be escape artists but the lid must also allow adequate ventilation. On the bottom, a substrate of vermiculite, or vermiculite mixed with varying ratios of potting soil and/or peat, should be provided at least 2-4 inches deep to provide burrowing room and to hold moisture.
Wood chips, especially cedar, should be avoided.
A place to hide should also be provided to your tarantula. A piece of cork bark, a half hollow log (as available from pet stores), or half a clay flower pot on its side.
A shallow water dish can be provided. It needs to be very shallow to prevent drowning and if there is any doubt some pebbles can be placed in the dish to give the spider something to climb out on if necessary.
Tarantula Lighting and Humidity
Tarantulas do not need bright lights but rather should be kept in a darker area of a room where direct sunlight will not fall on the cage. Incandescent lights should not be used for heating as they could potentially dry out the tarantula. Heating strips or pads (available at pet stores for reptiles) can be placed under a small part of the cage for heating needs. Most species of tarantula do fine somewhere between 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Appropriate temperatures and humidity must be maintained, but this is where the various species have different requirements. For tarantulas that do not require high humidity levels, a water dish (shallow) in the cage and misting once a week should be sufficient. For those that require higher humidity, more frequent misting will be necessary. In any case, temperature and humidity gauges should be used to monitor conditions. At the higher temperatures, extra care must be taken to ensure adequate humidity levels. At the same time, excess humidity can encourage mold growth and should be avoided.
The cage should not need cleaning frequently. For spiders kept at a relatively low humidity level, once per year is likely enough (earlier if mold, fungus or mites are noticed). For those kept in a more humid environment, this will need to be done more often.
A diet of crickets, supplemented with other insects, is fine for pet tarantulas and adults only need to eat about once a week. Some owners may try to mimic how a spider would eat in the wild and offer meals at random (maybe a couple of crickets then one cricket several days later, then a few crickets a week after that, and so on). Adults may also fast for extended periods (a month or two is not unusual), particularly before a molt. Growing spiders, however, should be fed several times a week.
The crickets should be gut loaded prior to feeding your tarantula, that is, they should be kept on a diet of nutritious food and dusted with vitamins prior to feeding. Remember that what goes into the cricket is what you are ultimately feeding your spider. Mealworms, super worms, and roaches can be fed on occasion. Larger tarantulas can even be given pinkie mice and small lizards if desired, although it is probably not necessary. The most important thing is to keep the food smaller than the tarantula (that is, smaller than its body) and make sure the tarantula isn't harmed by its prey. This includes not feeding any wild caught insects unless absolutely certain there is no risk of pesticide exposure. When molting, the spider is very vulnerable and even a cricket can kill them so be sure to remove any uneaten prey within 24 hours at the very most.
Molting is how the spider grows to a larger size - by shedding the old exoskeleton and producing a new one. This is a stressful time for a spider and also when humidity levels are most critical. The spider stops eating and then will lay on it's back to molt. The molting process may take several hours. Once the old exoskeleton is shed it will take several days for the new one to harden (this is when growth occurs) and the spider should not be fed during this time as it is vulnerable to injury and even death from something as small as a cricket. In addition, the spider should never be handled during the molting and hardening time. It may take up to two weeks for the spider to fully recover after molting.
While most tarantulas are not very venomous many tarantula experts advise against handling them. For the handler, bites can be painful and irritation can result from contact with the itching hairs on the tarantula but the greater danger is to the tarantula itself. While a tarantula may become acclimated to being held on the hand if it suddenly runs or jumps it may fall and the injuries sustained could be fatal. Even a minor fall can kill a heavy bodied tarantula if the abdomen ruptures. Some tarantulas are very fast and could also escape. Children especially should not be allowed to handle tarantulas due to the risk of injury to both the child and the spider.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT